Thursday, March 31, 2011

My Favorite Video Game Music, #1: Smiles And Tears

#1: Smiles And Tears

So this is it. It's been a long journey, it's been tough, it's even been painful at times; but we've bonded together and worked through it all together, and yes, we've even had fun. I'm talking, of course, about this Top 50 list. And there's no better way to end it than with this.

I called Aria de Mezzo Carattere the most beautiful video game music ever, and that it is; but this is a close second. And while the Aria was 100% pure beauty, there's something uniquely stirring about this track that you hardly ever find anywhere else. If you just clear your mind and sit back and listen to this music, it will take your mind to unusual places.

Throughout EarthBound your play will be repeatedly interrupted by a random cameraman dropping out of the sky and taking photographs of you. (There are 30-some places in the game this can happen.) He has no apparent connection to the story and his presence in the game is never explained until the very end of the ending. EarthBound's credits come in two parts: first the in-game credits set to a funky beat (see #11), and then EarthBound's magnum opus, this music playing while the game shows you all the photographs that were taken and the credits roll. It is actually quite powerful.

I've had 15 years to think about what exactly makes EarthBound so different from every other game--and no doubt EarthBound is a unique game--and so prone to being either loved with devotion or detested with scorn by almost everyone that plays it. And I think one of the important reasons for this is, there is a very strong undercurrent of sentimentality all through EarthBound. You don't really get that with other RPG's; you get epic stories and, sometimes, deep character development, but almost every time the character in question is angsty and broken to some extent. That's absent from EarthBound; the four heroes are early-teenage kids whose regularly scheduled childhood was interrupted by the urgent need to save the world from the horror of Giygas' eternal darkness. EarthBound mixes jokes and lightheartedness with "this is serious business and these kids are really struggling" unusually well, and the further you go in the game the more it slowly tilts toward serious business. By the time you finish the Lost Underworld, the jokes are gone. Right after that is Magicant (i.e., Ness's subconscious) and it's a silly and whimsical place... but not really. And it turns dark fast and culminates with Ness confronting the evil in his own soul. Before Earth's 13-year-old chosen champion can defend it from the encroaching darkness, he must first conquer himself.

There's something a little tragic about so much being dumped on a 13-year-old's shoulders. EarthBound is full of whimsy, but the game also very subtly points you back to that point. For Ness and his friends, this was a tough road.

Leaving off the game, let's talk about this music on its own merits. Of all the video game music I've heard, this track stands up better than almost all others separated from its source. And like the game, this is because it is very powerfully sentimental. It combines EarthBound's whimsy with its nagging sense of loss. And the music is perfectly titled. Smiles and tears.

This would be perfect music to set to a five minute slide show or video show in loving memory at a funeral. Go ahead: quiet everything else in the room, put this music on, close your eyes and focus your thoughts on some departed friend or family member of yours. Or even a beloved pet, or a TV character you were especially attached to, for that matter. See if the room doesn't get dusty at some point. If it doesn't, you are a 15-to-30 year old male. Try again in a few years. It'll pass.

And so this list ends. Thanks for reading, everyone.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

My Favorite Video Game Music, #2: For The Savior

#2: For The Savior
Lufia II

It was an endless, brutal journey through danger after danger, all the way to the end of the earth, but you endured, you fought through the pain and despair, and you've done it. You have defeated the Sinistrals and saved the world--but at a devastating price. Your wife, mortally injured in the battle, has just died in your arms. The Fortress of Doom is collapsing around you. You refuse to leave her side; your friends have teleported to safety and you, savior of the world, are left alone to die in the wreckage.

But Daos, Master of Terror, is an evil bastard, and with his last gasp he sent the airborne fortress careening on a course that will cause it to crash on, and destroy, your hometown--where you and your beloved wife's infant son sleeps.

You have one chance to stop it, to alter the crumbling island's course. You have three minutes to live. You'll never hear the accolades or the thanksgiving for saving the world from the Sinistrals, but that doesn't matter anymore. One thing matters.

You rise from your knees, your hands and armor stained with her blood. If you can't get there in time, the last of her blood will be gone forever. Three minutes.

This music encapsulates the flavor of that scene, one of the most heart-wrenching in any storytelling medium, so perfectly it gives a man chills. Triumph. Determination. Desperation.

Friday, March 25, 2011

My Favorite Video Game Music, #3: Staff Roll

#3: Staff Roll
Mario Kart 64

The tracks I listed #4 through #8 on this list are all very highly regarded music that is almost always cited in the top 10 or 15 of anybody's list. (Except One Winged Angel, which is too popular to be popular.)

The tracks I list #3 through #1 I suspect a lot of people have never heard before. This one is probably the best known of them, as Mario Kart 64 was the most widely played game of the three represented.

Anyway, you'll notice how 4 through 6 were the three most awesome Final Battle themes of all time. At heart I am attracted to the drama and tension of that final struggle, but even more I love the thrill and triumph of final victory. And no video game music has ever been composed that says thrill and triumph of final victory better than this one. It is triumphant music, exuberant music, music that makes you instinctively want to raise your fists to the sky and exult in the sound of 30,000 people chanting your name. Funny that you'd find it in a fun little package of a game like Mario Kart 64--notable for being far, far easier to beat than Super Mario Kart, but also for being a beautiful game in graphics, design and especially music.

There is a category called "best music to set to a three-minute montage celebrating your favorite sports team winning the championship", and this track runs away with that category like Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes. (Which wouldn't be a bad thing to set to this music, come to think of it.) If you don't believe me, try it: find such a montage (they're all over Youtube), mute whatever piss-lame music it's set to and put this music on instead. Behold how awesome it is.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #4: Dancing Mad

#4: Dancing Mad
Final Fantasy VI

Ladies and gentlemen, I present the granddaddy of all Final Battle themes. One Winged Angel was a phenomenon, but Dancing Mad will probably never be topped.

Of all the great RPG's I've played, Final Fantasy VI feels the most epic. 'Epic' is a word you see thrown willy-nilly around the internet these days, but when I invoke it here I am using its classic meaning: grand and deep both in scope and impact; a long, involved and life-altering journey. By that definition, no game's story carries the weight Final Fantasy VI's does. And it all culminates with--and I mean this both in the classic sense and the internet sense--an epic final battle accompanied by epic music.

I think the second-longest piece on this list, not counting loops, is yet to come; it's about five and a half minutes long. Dancing Mad is three times that length, or about twice that length if you discount the fact each of the first three movements is played through twice.

Which brings me to my next item: This music comes in four distinct movements, which you will see called 'tiers' since they correspond to the four tiers of your fight against Kefka. Each has its own distinct flavor: the Face/Arms tier is menacing, the Four Parts tier is relentless and oppressive, the Hit/Girl tier is dark and spiritual, and the Kefka tier is powerful, out of control and insane. All the music falls into place. This is the closest thing to a bona fide symphony video game composers have ever assembled. Listened to in whole, the effect is tremendously impressive. Like Final Fantasy VI.

Consider the general story flow of Final Fantasy VI. You start out as the loosely-defined leaders of an underground resistance against the Evil Empire (yes, they're just called the Empire) led by Emperor Gestahl, who is swiftly and bloodily conquering the world with Magitek, machines infused with magic power drained from Espers, mythical creatures made of magic. Against Magitek no army has a prayer of standing. Gestahl is supported by three powerful generals who are kind of aligned against each other on the Magitek spectrum: Leo, Honorable Warrior Extraordinaire who refused to be infused with magic; Kefka, who happily accepted the magic transfusion but went semi-crazy and started dressing like a clown and generally became a very loose cannon; and Celes, who wasn't given the option but instead was infused with magic as a very small child, and who eventually goes rogue and joins/arguably takes leadership of the resistance.

I mean, right there, even if you'd never heard it before, you'd have to agree that's a hell of a basis for an epic story, right?

And so it is. Your Returners spend the first half of the game struggling against the Empire--and making use of Espers and magic themselves in doing so--and generally finding mixed success. But Gestahl proves a very wily opponent indeed, and successfully tricks the Returners into walking into an ambush right in his own capital city, resulting in the slaughter of pretty much all of them except your party of PCs. After which Gestahl reaches his ultimate goal: meddling with the statues of the three goddesses that created the world, the source of the very power of creation.

At which point a monkey wrench gets thrown into Gestahl's grandiose plan: Turns out Kefka had world domination plans of his own and Gestahl doesn't fit into them. And it also turns out Kefka has been studying. He knows a lot more about the Statues than Gestahl does. As soon as they find said Statues, and just as your party arrives to try to save the day, Kefka whacks Gestahl, tosses his dying body off the Floating Continent a couple miles up in the sky, and starts moving the Statues around. Which results in ripping the world apart and rearranging it pretty much at random.

You can guess why the rest of the game is called the World of Ruin.

So you flash forward a year, and then spend the rest of the game, starting with Celes, reassembling your party that was scattered to the winds to form one desperate assault on Kefka, who now is both certifiably insane and a god. Literally. Most Big Bads think they're gods or aspire to be gods, but this is the only game other than the Lufia games I know of where you are actually expected to fight and defeat a god.

So anything less than truly epic music to accompany your battle against a god would be disappointing. Final Fantasy VI does not disappoint.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

My Favorite Video Game Music, #5: One Winged Angel

#5: One Winged Angel
Final Fantasy VII

Had I published this list ten years ago--and every track on this list was extant ten years ago--I would likely have been criticized for rating this track as low as #5. I might have gotten away with rating it #2. But mostly people would have expected it to be #1. That was the height of FF7-mania and Sephiroth-mania, and one of the big reasons Sephiroth got to be as popular as he did was this music.

There has never been a more popular piece of video game music in its own time. One Winged Angel was probably the first video game music to be so popular it got noticed outside the video game world. Remember how I speculated Bloody Tears (#13) may have been remixed more times than any video game track in history? If anything beats it out in remix count, it's this track. One Winged Angel launched (or, perhaps, re-lauched) a vogue in Ominous Latin Chanting that lasted a while and was seen in numerous big-budget films. (For a superb example of Ominous Sanskrit Chanting, check out the climactic fight in Matrix Revolutions.)

This music was something brand new to the video game world; that was a lot of its charm. It rolled hard rock, opera and brass into an ass-kicking package; virtually everyone that played it (on the Playstation; the music in the PC version of FF7 sucked) was blown away. It's not even that the final battle in Final Fantasy VII was tremendously great in itself; really it was pretty anticlimactic even by Final Fantasy standards, you beating the tar out of hapless ol' Safer Sephiroth and the battle mostly being slowed down by his various long-execution attacks so you can enjoy the music. But oh man, the leadup to that final confrontation: the opening horns and drums of this music blaring as the Kefka ripoff One Winged Angel himself descends to do battle with you. There has never been anything better for instant heart-pumping... with possibly one exception (still to come on this list).

But now it's 2011, and I am likely to be criticized for ranking this music far too high. Because no music was ever more popular, and that means no music ever suffered more from It's Popular Now It Sucks backlash. Especially in Internetland--and you probably noticed that there is a lot of overlap between Gamerland and Internetland--nobody wants to be seen liking what everyone else likes. It's a rule in Internetland that you have to be at least as unique as everyone else. That means you have to like stuff that isn't popular, preferably stuff most people have never heard of. (Find a movies forum and witness how 75% of the posters turn up their nose at all Hollywood films and seek out European or Asian movies that are obscure even in Europe or Asia to heap praise upon. And also how 90% of them are pissed off I just used 'film' and 'movie' interchangeably in the previous sentence.)

So now One Winged Angel is overrated. One Winged Angel being overrated has become so universal that it is now comfortably underrated. It is epic music, it was groundbreaking music in its time, and above all, it stands up extremely well today. It is by far the trophy winner in the category of "best video game music for a baseball closer to have blaring on the sound system as he walks to the mound to finish a close game". (For your reference, the most iconic rock songs that closers have actually used are Hell's Bells and Enter Sandman.) The message this song would send to opposing hitters can't be mistaken: I am a complete badass and you are doomed. Plus the lyrics would be good for your ass-kicking closing image. Burning with vehement anger and all that.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #6: Battle With Magus

#6: Battle With Magus
Chrono Trigger

Now, you would have to have gotten hold of Chrono Trigger the instant it was released and be somehow cut off from all information about the game (since information on important plot events was already known to many gamers before it was released) to play the game truly organically. But if you did, the game elaborately leads you to believe that Magus, Jackass Dark Wizard and Evil Overlord Extraordinaire of A.D. 600, is the Big Bad, that your mission to save the world will successfully conclude if you can get to Magus and kill him dead before he can create Lavos, the Planet Eater that will destroy life 1,400 years later. Because Magus is a dick. He really is. He slaughtered countless Guardia soldiers and civilians, and he turned Frog into a frog just for the lolz (no, really; he stated himself he did it just for fun).

So you spend a good half of the game running all over time collecting the various MacGuffins you need to gain access to Magus's Evil Castle of Supreme Darkness--no, it really is dark and evil and makes you want to run home to Mommy--and then when you finally get there, it proves to be as wicked and grueling as any Very Definitely Final Dungeon you'd care to name. Probably never has a dungeon's theme been so well executed; by the time you finally whack First Lieutenant Ozzie and gain access to Magus's shrine, the tension is so palpable you're a zombie if your heart isn't racing.

After you heal up and save up, you walk down a very long, dark stairway while ominous chanting grows slowly louder and you get slowly stalked by bats that, unless you sprint down the stairs, you have to kill. Then you walk into Magus's chamber in total silence and total darkness, and with each step forward you take eerie blue-purple flames erupt on both sides of you while Magus chants.

Neuga, ziena, zieber, zom...
Now the chosen time has come...

Exchange this world for--!

That, friends, is a summoning ritual. Which we sure as hell are here to interrupt.

And when it shortly comes down to throw down for the fate of the world and Frog's amphibian honor, the Black Wind will embrace you with this music while you battle the Jackass Wizard. Which isn't easy. But listen to this music; did you think it would be easy?

Magus's theme music, like all good character theme music, fits him. Dark, threatening, dangerous, evil... even a little taunting. Like Magus, the music calls to you: "Give me your best shot... if you're prepared for the void!"

Then you finally whip the bastard and it turns out the game's only half over and Magus didn't create Lavos. He just summoned Lavos. Because he wanted to kick Lavos's ass. Which incidentally aligns with your goals. You can only imagine the awesome insanity that ensues.

So Magus wasn't the final battle of Chrono Trigger, but if you were completely uninitiate, the storyline would very much convince you he was. And he has the heart-pumping battle music to back it up.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My Favorite Video Game Music, #7: Aria di Mezzo Carattere

#7: Aria di Mezzo Carattere
Final Fantasy VI

This is, beyond all question, the most beautiful video game music ever composed.

Really I would be best off just leaving the above sentence stand for itself and moving to the next track; there isn't much else to say about it. This is beauty. Of course I'm wordy and scatterbrained so I'm going to add to it, but I don't blame you if you don't read it. Much better to just close your eyes and let the music lift you to a place more delectable than your computer chair.

This might be the first, and for that matter perhaps the only, piece of SNES music that was and is undeniably iconic. That this was music like no one had ever heard before in a video game was instantly and permanently understood.

Here is where I commit brazen heresy: I cannot stand Locke. His attitude annoys me, his sense of humor annoys me, his appearance annoys me, and most of all his relentless emotionalism annoys the hell out of me. I am convinced that this character has no redeeming qualities and deserves nowhere near the love he gets from fans.

So why is he so popular? Because he nailed Celes, that's why. Now, Celes, that's a different story. Celes is a very deep and very sympathetic character; in fact she is, from the time she's introduced into the story through the endgame, probably the protagonist of the game. (Never has an RPG defined its protagonist so unclearly as Final Fantasy VI, but I would argue Celes's case and would hear no other case but Terra's.) The only real problem with Celes as a character is the way she falls instantly lovesick for a tool like Locke and follows him around like a lost puppy dog the rest of the game, which has always seemed very out of character for me even setting aside what a tool Locke is. But hell, I think the official game material pegs her at like 19 years old, and emos gonna emo, I guess.

Locke is the primary male character for at least the first half of the game, and it is obvious the game designers intended the player (the player is always male) to name Locke after himself; he is after all the first male character introduced, and his first mission is to rescue a pretty girl that's in trouble. That the player will name this character after himself is a layup. (I did. So did you. Don't lie.) So the events that lead up to the Opera Scene get the player very well prepared for their own vicarious love affair with the beautiful ex-Imperial general with a spirit as pure as snow.

And the Opera Scene--you never need to identify it any further than just 'the Opera Scene'-- is possibly the single most memorable scene in all RPG history; it's that or Aeris's death. Why? Because of this music. The Opera Scene was so amazing, and it was amazing because the music was so phenomenal, that it overshadowed all character development. The implication set up by the story is very clear: As Celes sings her poetic love lines like

Must I forget you?
Our solemn promise?
Must autumn take the place of spring?
Oh, what shall I do? I'm lost without you
Please, speak to me once more!

she is singing to Locke. Or, cutting to the point: She is singing to me. Locke and Celes were an inseparable couple for all eternity after that tour de force, whether I like it or not.

This is in the Top 10 and I still expect to be mostly criticized for not rating it higher. It's because it's this music's fault Locke got the girl, dammit.